In a stunning reversal of previous government plan to mothball nuclear power plants, the government in Japan headed by the nationalist Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officially abandoned the zero-nuclear goal of the previous administration on 11 April 2014 by adopting a new basic energy policy that pledges to push for restarting the reactors idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns.
Japan has had a Basic Energy Plan since 2003. The government is legally required to check the plan at least once every three years and revise it if necessary. The new Basic Energy Plan, revised about every three years, is a clear departure from the zero-nuclear policy set by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After the Fukushima meltdown, the DPJ in 2012 had pledged on what it called an “energy strategy” aiming to abolish all nuclear power plants by the end of the 2030s. But the landmark decision triggered strong opposition from the business world, and the DPJ government at that time did not revise the 2010 Basic Energy Plan that was expected to stipulate the details to realize the strategy.
The previous plan, adopted under the DPJ rule before the 2011 Fukushima crisis, called for increasing the share of nuclear power in the nation’s electricity generation to more than 50 per cent by 2030, mainly as a measure to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Basic Energy Plan now sets the stage for the government to move ahead to restart nuclear reactors and sets policies for the next 20 years. The Plan calls nuclear energy an “important source of base load power” for Japan and states that nuclear reactors, all 48 of which are remaining idle now, should be restarted once they have cleared safety screening by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). The screenings are based on standards established by the NRA after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It is open to question when and how the idled nuclear power plants will pass, what the government itself says, world’s toughest regulatory standards. In the 78-page policy paper, the government used the term “base-load electricity sources” to describe types that can stably generate power at a low cost 24 hours a day, while pledging to “reduce nuclear dependence as much as possible”.
Since the pro-nuclear LDP returned to power in December 2012, the move had been expected. But the government spent several more months than initially expected before deciding on the plan as draft documents stirred controversy among lawmakers who saw them as too strongly pro-nuclear in tone. The NRA is conducting tests on reactors 1 and 2 of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Satsuma Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture. The Sendai Plant might become the first to restart since the Fukushima crisis began, possibly in August or later. The Kyushu Electric Power Co. is also likely to get safety clearance by the Japanese regulators for its nuclear power plant on the southern island of Kyushu.1
The new basic energy policy received flak from the environmentalists, who criticised the reassertion of the role of nuclear energy in Japan’s power mix. The Friends of the Earth Japan said “We express our strong regret over the fact that the energy policy was decided as if the nation had not gone through its worst nuclear accident”. When the DPJ-led government in 2012 had announced the phase-out plan, nearly 90 per cent of about 90,000 written opinions submitted to the government then supported the phase-out plan. The group criticised the Abe government of repeatedly ignoring public opinion.
The new policy also says the government will “lower as much as possible” Japan’s dependency on nuclear power and push for the development of more renewable energies, including wind, geothermal heat and solar power, in particular over the next three years. The paper avoided setting a specific goal for a desirable ratio of energy sources for Japan, including oil, gas, nuclear power and renewable energy. The Plan focussed mainly on Japan’s need to secure stable sources, including nuclear, despite the public’s clear anti-nuclear sentiment. According to Toshimitsu Motegi, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister in charge of crafting the plan, the policy document details “a basic policy on the medium to long-term measures to rebuild a reasonable energy policy that supports people’s lives and economic activities”. The government studied several drafts before finally defining nuclear power as an “important base-load power source” that is cheap in terms of operation costs and reliability.
Before Fukushima meltdowns, nuclear at its peak accounted for about 30 per cent of Japan’s total electricity supply. The Plan envisages that this percentage should be reduced as much as possible by expanding renewable energy and achieving greater energy efficiency. However, there are no specific targets to be met from renewable, merely saying that the nation should seek to expand the share of renewable power beyond the government targets of 13.5 per cent in 2020 and 20 per cent in 2030. These targets were set before the 2011 disasters in the previous Basic Energy Plan of 2010.
Abe had made it clear after coming to power in December 2012 that his government would reject the DPJ’s bid to phase out nuclear power.2 When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stirred up a debate in 2013 that Japan should halt nuclear power generation immediately, Abe dismissed the idea as irresponsible. He argued that by keeping the nuclear plants idle, Japan has to increase fuel imports needed to run thermal power plants, thereby costing the nation trillions of yen each year and therefore does not make any economic sense.
Now it transpired that Abe is navigating a difficult path in strategising his government’s energy policy. First, he had to take into account the sentiment of some 135,000 people that remain still displaced from their homes due to radioactive contamination in areas surrounding the plant three years on and Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government still struggling to control the massive amount of radiation-contaminated water at the crippled plant.
According to critics, the nuclear disaster at Fukushima will probably cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars or more.3 Second, though the draft on the energy plan was ready in December 2013, Abe had to defer its release when nuclear power unexpectedly became an issue in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in February and had to make some changes, how cosmetic they may have been, mindful of public sentiments. Thirdly, Abe had to delay its release further because of criticism from within the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito that forced him to make more changes. However, the basic thrust of the plan that economic consideration overrules all other considerations supporting nuclear energy as a key source of power supply remains intact.
Notwithstanding Abe’s ambitious but pragmatic approach to the nation’s future energy needs, there are doubts within Japan if the new situation complies to or improves upon the realities and if the NRA will complete screening and give go ahead to a total of 17 nuclear reactors at 10 plants around the country to restart operations. Though safety requirements are sharply tightened post-3/2011 disasters, Abe government is hopeful that some of the reactors will be given safety clearances by the NRA before the coming summer.
Under the new NRA rules, the operating life of a nuclear power reactor is limited to 40 years, but it can be extended for another 20 years as an exception if the reactor clears a special inspection of the condition of its equipment. Four of the 48 reactors are already more than 40 years old while another 11 are at least 35 years old. If the government is keen to extend the life of these aging reactors, it will have to make extra safety investments. But if the present or any future government decides not to build any new reactors and decommissions all the existing reactors after 40 years of operation, Japan will have no nuclear reactors by 2050. Though the new energy plan makes no mention of whether the construction of new nuclear power reactors will be approved, it leaves open to the possibility of allowing the construction of new reactors when it says that the government will “assess the amount of nuclear power that should be secured” to ensure a stable energy supply in a resource-scarce country.
Future of Monju
The new energy plan admits that Japan faced difficulties to materialise its long-standing nuclear fuel policy. At the same time, it highlights the need to pursue plans to pursue spent uranium fuel and reuse the extracted plutonium and uranium as reactor fuel.4 It keeps alive the trouble-prone Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which has been developed to play a key role in fuel recycling, although commercialisation of fast-breeder reactor technology by 2050 is no longer mentioned as a target.5 The government wants the facility to serve as a centre for research to reduce the volume of nuclear waste and to improve technologies related to non-proliferation.
The Monju reactor was built at a cost of 1 trillion yen but has been kept off line for much of the past two decades because of a series of accidents and problems. It costs the government around 20 billion yen a year just to maintain it. The government has come under attack because it has failed to find a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste generated through reprocessing and therefore now characterises the plant as a “hub for international research” on technologies such as reduction of the amount of high-level nuclear waste. The Japan Times observed in its editorial thus: “Completion of a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture – an important component of the nuclear fuel cycle – has long been delayed for over a string of technical glitches. The construction cost alone tops 2 trillion yen. Amid dim prospect of Monju resuming operations as a fast-breeder reactor and uncertainty over the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuels at other plants, starting up the Rokkasho plant would likely only add to the nation’s unused plutonium stockpiles. Even though viability of the fuel cycle policy is widely doubted today, the energy plan only hints at the possibility of a future review of the policy by calling for ‘medium-to-long-term flexibility in its quest.”
As regards the country’s future energy mix in the plan, the government did not include specific percentages. It observed that it is difficult to foresee now the number of reactors that will be safe enough to restart and the amount of renewable energy available. But it did show its desire to boost renewable energy and promised to seek to introduce such energy sources “farther above” the level aimed at in the past, thereby implying to the targets set by the previous plan of 2010. Mortegi said the government will decide the country’s future energy composition within the next “two or three years”.
The Abe administration seems to be convinced, and rightly so, a resource deficient country such as Japan cannot do without nuclear energy as it is cheap, cost effective and readily available. What it needed was only to strengthen the safety standards so that the Fukushima-like experience is averted again in future. It is understandable that in the battle for political power, both the leading two parties of Japan – the LDP and the DPJ – are at variance in their approaches in dealing national issues. No wonder, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the DPJ who had announced after the nuclear disaster that Japan would end reliance on nuclear power by 2040 was unhappy. He had no hesitation to criticise the new energy plan which calls in places for reducing reliance on nuclear power, but when read carefully, it calls for the exact opposite. According to him, the energy plan promotes recycling of nuclear fuel, which implies that the Japanese government has learnt nothing from the Fukushima disaster.
Abe had to navigate through some dissenting voices from within his own party as well as those of his coalition partner, the New Komeito. Some members of the LDP were concerned that the plan did not reflect Japan’s aim to reduce its reliance on nuclear power to zero and eventually stop recycling nuclear fuel. Even some members of the New Komeito disagreed with the designation of nuclear power as a base-load energy source, who felt that the term is unfamiliar and potentially misleading to the public, and gave nuclear power too high a status.
Critics also said that during its successful election campaign to win back power in the December 2012 Lower House election, the LDP pledged to establish “a socio-economic structure that does not need to depend on nuclear power” but the new energy plan fails to present a road map for achieving that goal.
Understandably, the small-scale renewable energy producers were disappointed with government’s new energy plan, that affirms the country’s commitment to nuclear power and in the future. The 75-year-old Yoichi Yamakawa, President of Tama Energy LLC, a solar energy firm in Tokyo’s Tama district with small arrays atop universities and other buildings observed that the plan “has no high (renewable energy) targets, and doesn’t contain any measures to support small and medium producers”. He further said that only the big producers with megasolar stations will survive. Tama Energy’s business concept is to generate power locally only for local consumption. According to this concept, if electricity is generated locally, it will help contribute to the local economy by helping keep people, goods, and money circulating in the community and thereby stimulate the local economy. This kind of model had started to emerge as popular as the city of Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture and Aizu region in Fukushima Prefecture, among others, adopted plans based on the Tama model of generating power locally catering to the local community. The promoters of renewable energy feel disappointed that the new basic energy plan does not give a clear picture of the government’s attitude to the promotion of renewable energy. Therefore, while not abandoning nuclear as a source of electricity for the country, it is desirable for the Abe administration to take into account the concerns of the promoters of renewable energy to package their contribution into the country’s comprehensive energy strategy.
Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, JAPAN. E-mail: [email protected]
1. “Japan’s new energy policy supports nuclear use”, 11 April 2014,
2. Jeff Perlah, “Japan’s Mothballed Nuclear Power Program Reinstated Following Fukushima Disaster”, 10 April 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/japans-mothballed-nuclear-power-program-reinstated-following-fukushima-disaster-1570393
3. “Japan approves new energy policy supporting nuclear use”, 11 April 2014, http://www.lse.co.uk/AllNews.asp?code=wx55hh4g&headline=Japan_approves_new_energy_policy_supporting_nuclear_use
4. “Japan decides new energy policy that supports use of nuclear power”, Mainichi Japan, 11 April 2014 http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20140411p2g00m0dm038000c.html
5. “Energy plan looks to the past”, The Japan Times, editorial, 12 April 2014.